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Thursday, Oct 4, 2007


It begins with an intriguing premise. In the 1970s, Leroy “Nicky” Barnes ran Harlem’s drug trafficking empire. A slick, savvy street entrepreneur, he created a dynasty rivaled only by those created in fictional Hollywood crime flicks. Along with his crew of dapper associates – who called themselves The Council – he used the mostly black community as a basis for a borough wide organization of sale and distribution. Working closely with the Italians, and using as much muscle as necessary to maintain his turf, Barnes flaunted his illegally gained power right in front of the police. Yet no matter how hard they tried, no matter what angle they pursued, they couldn’t take down this urban Don. It earned him a nickname that would eventually lead to his downfall – Mr. Untouchable.


And then the mystery deepens. Barnes disappeared in the mid ‘80s for reasons that are unexplained at first. As we ponder the implication of such a vanishing, we hear his accomplices discuss their feelings. Then another voice is heard, and a dark figure is shown sitting in a fancy corporate boardroom. As the conversation continues, we realize what’s happening. After decades, documentary filmmaker Marc Levin (The Protocols of Zion) has managed to track down the elusive thug, and after years outside the limelight, Barnes is ready to reclaim a small, shadowy bit of it. Never shown full on, with only his hands and cuffed shirt sleeves visible, the anonymous figure explains his rise from junkie to ghetto superstar – and the reasons for his current state of anonymity.


Potentially undermined by the Ridley Scott/ Denzel Washington/ Russell Crowe drama that’s arriving in theaters this November (American Gangster), Mr. Untouchable is still a compelling, if confused, expose. It focuses on the often argued place that African American drug dealers have/had on addicting their race to various nefarious narcotics. In Barnes’ case, it was coke and heroin. Yet there was something equally potent that this pusher was selling – the concept of fiscal reliability and communal respect via shady criminal enterprises. Marginalized due to their minority status and left to rot in places white society had long since flown from, the metropolitan maelstrom that Barnes functioned in was ripe for a reconfiguration. And with their chic clothes and bad ass persona, the local racketeer became the new inner city icon.


It’s not hard to see why. During the opening third of this frequently spellbinding doc, we see pimped out players, incredibly hot honeys hanging off their arm like smoking sexual accessories. As the talking head interviews pile up, we get a portrait of Upper East Side New York during the height of its now mythic meltdown. We see ex-addicts discuss Barnes’ generous spirit and his organization’s desire to reach out to the community. While naked women cut cocaine (stripped in order to keep them from stealing) and codes of conduct and ethics are explained, the overall image begins to get blurry. By the time our central subject returns, cloaked persona spewing Machiavellian bon mots about power and perseverance, we understand the decidedly mixed message. On the one hand, Barnes is viewed as a DIY demagogue, an example of ‘by the bootstraps’ survival. But he’s also responsible for the death and/or murder of many in his neighborhood, providing the various poisons that would eventually destroy them all.


It’s a contentious, controversial approach, and for the most part, Levin does little to mitigate it. Similar to Scarface in such American dreaming subtext, Mr. Untouchable wants the charismatic to override the criminal. When convicted money launderer Joseph “Jazz” Hayden speaks his mind, he’s portrayed as philosophical, not felonious. Similarly, “Scrap” Batts lays down the law when in comes to honor and street code. Yet he’s still a part of an illegal enterprise that shattered more lives than it ever benefited – and all that goodness was mostly aimed inward, towards Barnes and his crew. Mr. Untouchable doesn’t glamorize the trade as much as excuse it, showing how isolated individuals can become from the consequences of their actions. Even our subject seems oblivious. When, toward the end, he admits to flooding Harlem with dope, he waves off the implied aftermath as if it was a necessary pitfall of the business plan.


Then there is the overall truth of what’s being told. If you believe Mr. Untouchable, Nicky Barnes was the only major drug dealer in Harlem during the period. He was the focus of every DEA agent, all the US attorneys, local law enforcement and the New York media. When supposed rival Frank Lucas is mentioned, he is instantly dismissed as a Southern rube with a dumbbell drawl and a less than effective organization. Oddly enough, it’s the same argument made in American Gangster, except with Barnes replacing Lucas as the unimportant fringe nuisance. It creates a weird dichotomy, aside from figuring which side is right. Naturally, both films are going to focus on their central thesis and minimize the importance of anything outside its own sphere of import. And Mr. Untouchable does give Barnes the last word on almost every subject. But if Lucas was such a lackey, why should anyone make a movie about him?


The answer is fairly obvious – this is Barnes’ tale, and he would never agree to sharing the spot. At times, Mr. Untouchable feels like a promotional tool for the mysterious man’s tell-all tome of the same name. Everything is filtered through his own unique perspective, and even when others contradict or flat out reject the man’s readings, Levin leaves us with Barnes’ interpretations. This doesn’t diminish the documentary’s power. In fact, we get wrapped up in the wonderful soul soundtrack of the era (much of it coming courtesy of the late, great Curtis Mayfield) and enjoy the nostalgic look back at the Big Apple as a city under siege. Though the last two decades of Barnes’ life are skipped over with sly sonic cues – disco to hip hop to new jack swing to gansta rap – the early ‘70s receives a grand cinematic workout. Even when the film flinches, the images don’t.


Still, Mr. Untouchable will always remain a mere part of the overall story. At 90 minutes, Levin barely has time to hit the highlights. And with access to a man many thought dead, or simply financially capable of disappearing, it’s hard to fiddle with your focal point. It’s a coup that both colors and undercuts this narrative, leaving gaps where full disclosure should rule. Yet despite these random miscues, Barnes remains a compelling if oblique, topic and the movie made of his notoriety rises above its inherent inconsistencies to offer a riveting ride through Me Decade drug despair. Landing the elusive man was indeed a cinematic scoop. Failing to force a confrontation may be Mr. Untouchable’s main blunder, but it’s really no surprise. Nicky Barnes has been avoiding responsibility his entire life. Why change now? Obviously, his nickname is well earned.


 


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Thursday, Oct 4, 2007


Redundancy quickly kills even the most fitting flight of fantasy. Without imagination, or at least some level of innovation, a tale formed by magic/myth feels stale and unoriginal. True, when you boil it down to the basics, what you’re dealing with is the standard good vs. evil paradigm, and one man’s Ewoks are another’s furry footed hobbits. But the key to a successful movie of this type it to avoid the formulaic and cliché to present something new – or something that, at first glance, appears unanticipated and novel. Such is the case with The Seeker: The Dark is Rising. Based on a series of books by Susan Cooper, this tale of the ages old struggle between The Light and The Dark should feel rote and preordained. But thanks to some interesting performances, a basically believable script, and a fine sense of scope, this kid friendly ersatz take on the Arthurian legend actually works – at least, for a while.


We are introduced to young Will Stanton (Alexander Ludwig) as he shuffles out of his UK school. An American by birth, he has recently arrived in England with his extended family - which includes a somber dad, a well meaning mother, five fabulously conceited older brothers, and a beholden little sister. About to turn 14, Will feels disconnected from his kin, lost in a world of private thoughts and personal questions. On Christmas Eve, he is invited to Miss Greythorne’s spectacular manor, where he is approached by her valet, Merriman Lyon (a wonderful Ian McShane). It is then that he learns of his lineage. As the seventh son of a seventh son, Will is the new Seeker, a special envoy of The Light, a bastion for all that is good in the world. With the help of the Old Ones (including Lyon and Greythorne) he will discover the signs that keep The Dark at bay. And good thing to, for evil’s envoy, in the form of the redolent Rider (a creepy Christopher Eccleston) is back after 1000 years to take over the world.


Though it frequently feels like its missing most of its formative folklore, and trails off into fits of formless meandering about two thirds of the way through, The Seeker is actually a rather good ripping yarn. Helmed by untested talent David L. Cunningham, whose resume reads like the opposite career arc for anyone attempting an F/X heavy narrative, and skimming only the barest of bones from Cooper’s complex books, the results are intriguing, if not wholly functional. While entertaining, the movie misses many chances at being downright superb. Part of the problem lies in the hero’s hormonal rages. By changing Will’s age from 11 (as in the books) to 14, and making him a slightly snotty American (vs. a Potter-esque Brit), he may become more identifiable to the intended demographic, but his occasional fits of forced puppy love can be joyless to behold. He’s a kid clearly controlled by the onset of puberty.


In addition, the main catalyst for our story – the fated role of Seeker and his traveling through time to retrieve the so-called signs – is given relatively short shrift, especially for a proposed epic. In some cases, Will hops into the past, performs a perfunctory duty, and toddles off. More time to play sibling rivalries with his far too cloying family, or make cow eyes with plot point Maggie Barnes, one imagines. Indeed, at several instances throughout The Seeker, the viewer recalls the E! Entertainment Executive from Knocked Up with his perennially perky advice to “tighten up”. This is a movie overloaded with filler, sequences that do nothing except establish mood and underline the mystic. While the tired trick used to realize the movement across the continuum reeks of a lack of imagination (the camera swirls around the participants and – WHOOSH! – we’re watching Vikings pillage), the rest of the movie tries its damnedest to amaze.


And we buy it. Mostly the result of the excellent performances and Cunningham’s ability to maintain pace and production value, The Seeker survives its occasional hindrances. Ian McShane, former Deadwood denizen, is wonderful as the mandatory mentor character. His stuffy gruffness helps moderate Will Stanton’s spoiled surliness. Similarly striking is Frances Conroy as the bespeckled Ms. Greythrone and James Cosmo as a big burly bear of an Old One named Dawson. They make a formidable group in aid of their young protégé. As our lead, Alexander Ludwig, is good but not great. He tends to literally act his age, appearing immature and inflexible more than brave and triumphant. His reactions of awe and wonder are well done, and his action adventure mantle is realistic if rather untested. In essence, Ludwig simply has to show up and appear able and the movie can work with it. He manages that conceit rather well.


But for some reason, the movie just can’t maintain all of its formidable forward momentum. Part of the problem is Christopher Eccleston’s lack of villainy. He looks the part, and summons CGI smoke and fowl with the best of them, but he’s never really a formidable challenge or threat. He seems easily outsmarted and never fated to win. Without a danger, he’s only harmless fodder, all talk and no real peril. The set piece scenes where nature is manipulated into portents of terror (killer icicles, fatal floods) work much better. They give us a real sense of danger, and deliver on the film’s fantasy promise with great enthusiasm. It’s just too bad that Cunningham couldn’t cut to the chase more often. The origin-oriented nature of the situation being explained frequently undermines this film’s concept of fun. And when dealing with elements both outrageous and unrealistic, amusement is a necessary nuance.


Still, The Seeker gives much more than it drains away, packing enough visual intrigue and interpersonal suspense to sustain even the most fidgety film fan. Granted, those obsessed with Copper’s books will be baffled by the numerous changes, exclusions, and additions, and as potential foundations for franchises go, this one misses many opportunities to guarantee a sequel. Still, one finds themselves lost in the world created by Cunningham, a place of warm fires, comforting countrysides, and upper crust British attitudes. So what if all the pieces aren’t properly in place. Who cares if our sorcerer in training is more Harry Smith than Potter. Does it really matter if the storyline stumbles while never really building up a decent level of showmanship? The answer is inherent in the ends. The Seeker should slowly submerge and sink under its many mundane facets. Instead, thanks to a little movie magic all its own, if finds a way to win us over.


 


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Thursday, Oct 4, 2007


It’s time for Ben Stiller to hang it up. Time for him to take his smug self-deprecating smarm and pack it in, along with the pointless pratfalls, the perplexed looks, and the pre-planned pop culture references. None of it works anymore – as a matter of fact, it hasn’t functioned successfully since he was riffing on Bono and Tom Cruise as part of his failed Fox sketch comedy series. At this point in his superstar status, he’s got enough money to make himself comfortable, and even if he doesn’t, his elderly dad’s F-you cash from Seinfeld and King of Queens will make a nice inheritance. So here’s hoping this normative force in funny business gets the message and moves along. That way, we won’t have to put up with his incredibly awful antics in mindless movies like this latest Farrelly Brothers flop.


The Heartbreak Kid – though why it would want to call itself that, seeing as how it slanders the legacy left behind by the Neil Simon/Elaine May original – is a disaster, an unmitigated humorless horror that never once plays as raunchy or as outrageous as it thinks it is. Realizing that their patented gross out scheme has long been usurped by others more adept at balancing the believable with the bawdy (read: the Apatow contingent), the men behind such hit or miss concoctions as Me, Myself, and Irene, Stuck on You, and Fever Pitch have managed to make the worst film of their careers – and that’s saying a lot for the guys behind Osmosis Jones. Using extremes like excuses and shouting where a script should be, this guaranteed to please the least demanding of audiences atrocity is a perfect illustration for why Mr. Freaks and Geeks and his party posse had to step in and save cinematic comedy. Without their Superbad life support, an effort like this would have been fatal.


Our sad, superficial story starts with 40 year old idiot Eddie Cantrow (the aforementioned Stiller). Unlucky in love – or perhaps a better way to put it is that he’s so emotionally inert that he makes amoebas seem like sharp, on the ball boyfriends – and unsure if he will ever wed, he decides to give romance one more chance when he falls head over horniness for smoking blond babe Lila (a wasted turn by Malin Akerman). At first, everything is dew drops and butterfly kisses. This new gal seems spectacular, and Eddie’s married pal Mac (Rob Corddry) and sex starved Dad (Jerry Stiller) want him tying the knot. But it’s not until Lila announces a potential job relocation to Rotterdam that our hero gets up the chutzpah to go nuptial. On his honeymoon, our numbskull newlywed learns the awful truth – Lila is a menace. She’s a sexually strange ex-coke whore with a deviated septum, gaseous genitals, and the manners of a rabid sugar glider. Even worse, she’s massively in debt, hopelessly insecure, and clingy as Hell.


Fast forward five minutes or so and Eddie realizes he’s the proverbial fool who jumped in - and there’s nary a wise man in sight. All he can find is Uncle Tito (a painfully unfunny Carlos Mencia), a local Mexican concierge who has a strange habit of making inappropriate comments out of jest. Even more depressing, Eddie befriends Miranda, a sweet and wonderful belle from Mississippi who appears to be his real soulmate. While her family is suspicious of his motives, the couple eventually falls for each other. Of course, Lila is still in the picture, and she’s not about to give up her man. And if and when the skit hits the fan, there’s bound to be some outrageous post-consummation problems. All Eddie wants is a chance at happiness. Too bad he didn’t think about that before leaping into a marriage with a psycho stranger. Sadly, anyone – including those in the audience - who witness this interpersonal fiasco is fated to pay – and pay dearly.


It is nearly impossible to describe how hopelessly terrible this so-called slopstick really is. Instead of developing a few believable characters and then making them act in surreal, excessively extreme ways, the Farrellys come up with the gruesome gags first, and then try to fit them into the narrative unabated. No explanation. No motivation. No connection to anything remotely resembling reality. Such a disturbing disconnect means that the movie has to work three times harder to deliver anything close to comedy. The viewer has to get over the abject abruptness, along with the lack of identifiable humanity, before ever nearing the realm of the satiric. The Heartbreak Kid is overrun with such jarring, jumbled moments. One minute our characters are having a stereotypical “wives are shrews” conversation. The next, they are discussing the particulars of pounding p****.


Besides, the majority of the material is not new or novel. For every setpiece that pushes the overhyped envelope (Lila urinating on Eddie to kill a jellyfish sting), there are a dozen scenes of senseless sameness, times when brazen curse words are called upon, fat people are mocked, and Southerners are labeled as hot tempered rednecks. Lila’s idea of appropriateness may not be socially acceptable, but she’s far closer to the fame whore mentality of our tenuous TMZ nation than Eddie’s wide-eyed doltish optimism. The original Heartbreak Kid had a real edge to it. All the characters were craven in their self-centered and social climbing desires. Here, no one is nasty. Our hero is a lox, his new wife is a weirdo, and his proposed new honey is a slightly snarky hoot. No one is out to hurt anyone’s feelings. Instead, they want to beat around the bush as much as possible, if only to allow the filmmakers to make yet another lousy lady parts joke.


Even worse, the movie is pitched so wildly over into the doubtful dynamic that you can’t believe most of what you are seeing. Lila’s mandatory sunburn (how else can Eddie get out of the hotel to womanize) resembles the results of nuclear fallout, and her screwed up sinuses permit gallons of goo – and the occasionally piece of Carne Asada – to weep from her nostril. It’s not hilarious, it’s harrowing. Similarly, Eddie spends 45 minute mooning over Miranda. Yet as the title cards indicate the passage of time, he appears to be less obsessed and more absent minded. Without spoiling the so-called ‘surprise’, our lead does something so unconscionably dumb that one wonders how he manages the motor skills to dress himself in the morning. No one is ordinary here, and before you start bellyaching about comedy being a genre of the bizarre, there is a fine line between credible and cockamamie. The Farrellys always manage to find the divide and defecate all over it.


As for the actors, only Akerman manages to acquit herself. She tries everything short of bribery to make Lila somewhat likeable, and even with all her hissy fit phoniness, we see some heart at the center of the severity. Michelle Monaghan, on the other hand, is less than triumphant. Thinking that a cocked head and slight smirk will qualify as a third dimension, she’s rather vague as a potential cosmic paramour. Carlos Mencia should sue – or at the very least, steal every supposed snicker written for him. It’s no more racist than the routines he does on his Comedy Central showcase. And someone needs to shut the senior Stiller up right now. He can’t do crude effectively, and when he swears, it’s like the first time he’s ever heard those words, let alone spoken them aloud. But no one is worse than ol’ sonny boy. Bland Ben is Night at the Museum noxious here, almost immobile in his co called wittiness. It’s enough to make you wish for the days when he was a bad boy toy circa 1990’s Stella.


Still, like the craven Chris Tucker and the clueless Adam Sandler, the Farrellys never went broke underestimated the intelligence of their target audience. The adolescent males who will make a beeline to the Bijou the minute this movie opens will split a side chortling at every non-PC pronouncement and huff their puffing during the many hard R sex scenes. The frat boy level of laughs will strike a similar sophomoric chord, and keggers will be kinetic with talk of the classic “kitty ring” reveal. Of course, none of this makes The Heartbreak Kid artistically valid. It doesn’t even turn it into a redeemable entertainment. Instead, it’s further proof that no one does desperate and dour better than our man Ben. Here’s hoping he retires sooner than later. We don’t need his gloom and doom humor clogging up comedy anymore.



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Thursday, Oct 4, 2007

It’s easy to be lulled into complacency when thinking about the putative wisdom of markets, and I’ve found myself guilty of it lately: listening to a co-worker complain about the death of mom-and-pop type stores in Manhattan, I sat silently thinking that if New Yorkers truly cherished such stores, they wouldn’t be disappearing. Of course the situation is not so clear-cut—big chains make their bucks elsewhere and then contribute to the rent inflation that makes smaller businesses unprofitable. Chains can defray the expenses of flagship outlets in prestigious locations by trimming costs around the margins at workaday branches in humdrum suburban strip malls. But since I’ve inundated myself with econothink, I tend to put the burden of proof on those who want to tamper with the workings of markets, particularly for the provision of nonessential goods. So this Slate column by economist Joel Waldfogel, worked for me as a timely corrective. His main point is that individual taste doesn’t dictate what is available in the marketplace:


Two simple conditions that prevail in many markets mean that individual taste alone doesn’t determine individual satisfaction. These conditions are 1) big setup costs and 2) preferences that differ across groups; when they’re present, an individual’s satisfaction is a function of how many people share his or her tastes. In other words, in these cases, markets share some of the objectionable features of government. They give bigger groups more and better options.



Waldfogel’s point here is that markets stifle diversity, but in a perverse way, this strikes me as an argument in markets’ favor; why should we labor under the tyranny of individuals’ taste, and the waste and inefficiency necessary to cater to each and every person out there? Maybe long-tail marketing and internet distribution can mitigate the collective burden of this somewhat, but still—markets may be useful to the degree that they break people out of selfish expectations and gratifications, teach them that gathering goods is the part of life in which you should conform and accept what’s available, and its the actual conduct of your life that brings to it its individualized color. What’s wrong with markets is not that that can’t gratify individualistic desires, but that they can and that marketers do whatever they can to foster such wishes.


But Waldfogel is right in pointing out that there is nothing particularly “just” about market outcomes, anymore than politically motivated outcomes determined by bureaucrats. The main argument in the market outcome’s favor is the illusion of control it affords the consumer—you seem to have no one to blame but yourself. But in a functioning democracy, a popularly elected government can contribute the same illusion of control, only you spend your vote rather than your dollar to shape your economic outlook. But the case I would want to make is that there is no point in expecting justice of that sort—of the “right” to have one’s peculiar wants serviced—in the marketplace, and that one should be looking for justice, fulfillment, self-expression, and so on elsewhere.


UPDATE: Economist Glen Whitman has a similar take.


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Thursday, Oct 4, 2007

A new model for co-operative competition between newspapers in an online alliance.

On The Subway Photograph by Yi

On The Subway Photograph by Yi


AFP reports that three Japanese newspapers are creating an online alliance that will see their articles published alongside one another in order to maintain the influence of newspapers which is being eroded by the popularity of the Internet, and to encourage younger readers to subscribe to the print editions of the newspapers. “The tie-up involves The Yomiuri Shimbun, which is considered the world’s top-selling newspaper, along with its liberal arch-rival The Asahi Shimbun and the Nikkei business daily,” writes AFP. “The three media giants will also cooperate in distribution in regional areas, especially the Yomiuri and Asahi dailies which respectively sell over 10 million and eight million morning copies each day. The alliance came as the newspaper industry faces difficulties in maintaining Japan’s extensive home delivery system, particularly in remote areas where the population is dwindling.” The story also notes that Japan is one of the few countries in the world where newspaper circulation isn’t going down, and this attributed to the home delivery services.


In describing the new service The Yomiuri Shimbun said the alliance is also expected to “bolster the quality of their articles as readers will be able to scrutinize different accounts of the same stories from three papers. The Web site will serve as a journalistic arena where reporters from the three papers will compete with each other in the full glare of the public eye. Accordingly, reporters will strive to write articles of superior quality and the readers of each paper will come to expect high-quality writing.” During disasters the newspapers will share printing and distribution services to get their newspapers to their readerships.


 


Tagged as: japan, media, newspapers
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